Legislators look at divorce

Divorce involves crafting parenting plans and itemizing property, hashing out bitter feelings and wading through legal jargon. To help alleviate the strain brought on by the emotional and oftentimes antagonistic process—one that's increasingly being waged in Montana's overburdened judicial system—state legislators this month began deliberating whether to change the laws that govern divorce.

"This process, whatever it looks like, has just got to be more humane," says Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, who introduced Senate Joint Resolution 22, which calls upon lawmakers to identify new alternatives to the status quo before the legislature reconvenes in 2015. "Maybe our state rules are just too complicated."

Last year, the number of new legal filings in Montana district courts topped 50,000 for the first time. More than one in five of those cases involved domestic and family law.

On July 10, attorneys, judges and lawmakers highlighted the scope of the problem before the Montana Legislature's Interim Law and Justice Committee. Those in attendance said there are roughly 40,000 open child support cases pending in the state that involve 60,000 kids. Divorce is a civil proceeding, meanwhile, meaning that low-income litigants aren't entitled to a public defender. Last year, 60 percent of family law cases involved at least one party who wasn't represented by an attorney.

That trend leaves judges and their staffers to help educate ill-equipped couples. "The statistics are alarming in terms of the amount of caseloads in this area that our courts are experiencing," Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker said during the July 10 meeting.

The Supreme Court asked Jent to carry SJ 22. Baker cited the need to use resources more efficiently as among the reasons the court initiated the study. Reform supporters also noted that the social costs of fighting over such matters in an inherently combative legal system can exacerbate problems within families.

Montana Mediation Association President Linda Gryczan testified before legislators that the law can be made better. Gryczan noted in an interview with the Independent, meanwhile, that some states, including Utah, Tennessee and North Carolina, mandate mediation in contested divorce proceedings. Gryczan believes that's a good idea, unless abuse is a factor. A third party well versed in encouraging healthy dialogue can help, she says, and, in doing so, alleviate the strain on Montana's courts.

"It's far better for people to come to agree," Gryczan says.

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